Why should you always finish your projects?

Having said in my last blog post that starting a project was the most important step, there is a step that is nearly as important. That step is finishing a project.

Why is finishing a project so important?

Finishing a project is important for a number of reasons and some of these are listed below.

  1. If you do not finish you cannot ‘ship’ the work, i.e. it is wasted effort
  2. You only know how successful something has been when it is finished
  3. You do not get to be smug about how you completed something
  4. If it is important it will nag at you until it is done

So how do I ensure I finish projects?

The best way I have found is to break the project down into small manageable chunks that can be ticked off one by one until the project is complete. This way I get a series of small victories to help keep me motivated and can easily determine my progress through a project. Invariably there will be changes to original plans and this should be reflected in timelines and goals at later stages.

For example, for the past month I have been trying to draw a quick sketch of something that I have seen discarded on the street and post it on my Instagram feed. This way I have motivated myself to do some sketching (albeit extremely quick sketches) and each additional day completed encourages me not to fail at the next day. I do not want to break the chain. This is suggested in one of Austin Kleon’s books (I think it might be Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered which is well worth a read). It is alos inspired by Lisa Congdon who has spoken about doing daily self-initiated projects to learn new skills and help create something to show (her books Whatever You Are, Be a Good One: 100 Inspirational Quotations Hand-Lettered by Lisa Congdon is an excellent example of one of these ‘passion projects’. She also wrote Art Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist which is very good).

What if I discover I do not want to finish a project?

I would suggest that you try to finish it to some degree as it might be that you are having a dip in your motivation and that by continuing you may both learn something and also become re-interested in the work. I find this often happens after the initial creative work is complete and it is time to revise and edit a piece of writing. This can be tedious at times, however, perseverance is the key and once this is done there is the excitement of the final push for completion and the joy of seeing the final piece of work.

There may be times when you cannot bear to continue with something and if you have tried several times to complete it, it might be necessary to put it away for a while and do something else, so you can come back to it later re-invigorated. If this does not work you could try to get someone else to input as this can breathe life back into a project. If this fails and you are set on ditching the work then you should try to complete the latest step you are on and get it into a state where it can hibernate. That way if you want to come back to it, it will be there waiting for you.

What next for your systematic review – Fully define your research hypothesis or question.

So you have decided that you are going to put together a systematic review and you have managed to persuade some of your colleagues and peers to be co-authors. What might you do next to get the review done?

Have a meeting.

The first thing I would recommend is that you get everyone who is to be involved together to define the problem. This is important because everybody will come to the table with different mind sets and different backgrounds, and also prior knowledge. Together you can make sure that everyone is agreed as to what problem will be addressed.

However, you should not go beyond that in the meeting, rather once the problem has been clarified you should end the meeting and get everybody to think of what hypothesis or question your review will be addressing. This way you will not end up with just the point of view of the most respected author or the person who shouts the loudest. Also, I find that my best ideas come when I am not really thinking directly about them and by leaving time to think you provide the opportunity for people to synthesise what was discussed and come up with any solutions or points that need clarification that were missed during the meeting.

This thinking time should not be extensive and should be defined during the meeting by booking the next meeting in for a couple of days later.

Have another meeting

Everybody has hopefully now thought about the issues and come up with ideas for the hypothesis. At this second meeting you will review everybody’s ideas. Let each person present their ideas in turn without allowing any questions to ensure that people are not intimidated and only present part of what they have come up with.

Once everybody’s ideas have been presented you can then discuss the merits of them all and finesse the hypothesis until you have it agreed by all authors. At this point you will need to discuss any limits people feel will be necessary for the systematic review, will it be limited for example by date, inclusion criteria, size or specific endpoint measures. These limits will be very important once the search has been run as you will typically need to filter huge numbers of abstracts to determine the few that will be included and as suggested by the type of review your process needs to be systematic.

What next?

The next step, once the hypothesis or question has been defined, is to define the search and that will be discussed in the next post.

References

I have taken a lot of the ideas for this post from an Accidental Creative podcast episode I listened to on brainstorming. This episode can be found here and is well worth a listen.

Some thoughts on systematic reviews

I remember that in my first year of university (in 2000) we were taken to the library and shown how to search the Beilstein Handbook of Organic Chemistry to identify previous instances of reactions we might be interested in. There was a wall of books and it was quite intimidating. However, I never had to look at those books because there was also an online searchable database which made the task much easier. I cannot imagine how much time must have been spent by chemists searching for reactions and reaction conditions, that was suddenly freed up by taking the data online.

This has happened with most data sources and we can now search through records of journal publications and patents with ease. This I believe has led to the increase in the publication of the systematic review and the decrease in the importance placed on narrative reviews. It has changed so much that, nowadays, before many research projects are fully initiated, a systematic review is undertaken to explore, among other things, what is already known about the topic and whether the research project is novel. Owing to their inclusion of all available, relevant data systematic reviews are considered the pinnacle of evidence in evidence-based medicine [Wikipedia]. This is, in my mind, embodied by the Cochrane Collaboration, which has a handbook on how to perform systematic reviews for inclusion in their database.

It is, therefore, important that all researchers understand what a systematic review is and how to perform one. In addition, it is important to know what to do with the output. Is it okay to summarize the data, or should it be synthesised in some way, either through meta-analysis or narrative synthesis. Furthermore, we need to be able to judge the quality of published systematic reviews so that we can judge their quality and determine whether there is any bias inherent in them, or flaws in the methods used.

The PRISMA Statement

The PRISMA Statement is a great help, as it details everything to be included in a systematic review and its planning and I have found this useful when planning, performing and writing up systematic reviews, as it provides a useful checklist to bear in mind.

I want to start my systematic review. What should I do?

The very first thing you need to do is ensure you are asking an interesting question that is relevant and that you are asking it in the correct fashion. You should discuss your idea with colleagues who work in the same field and have similar interests, and also read any relevant papers that you are aware off. This might highlight aspects that you are unaware of or have overlooked. It will also provide the groundwork for the next step, which is putting together your hypothesis and developing your search strategy which will identify the references that will potentially be included in the review. You should also work out who your co-authors will be and each person’s role. For example, you will need somebody to do the search and at least two people to go through the results separately and someone to adjudicate any conflicting views about whether or not to include a manuscript in the review.

Once this is done you are ready to think about actually starting work on your systematic review, and I shall offer my thoughts on those steps in the next few posts.

Don’t just write, make sure you read as well

One of my favourite quotes about writing comes from Austin Kleon who says:

“In every undergraduate creative writing workshop I was part of, there was that one kid who said, ‘I like to write, but I don’t really like to read,’ and it was evident right away that you could pretty much write that kid off completely.”

This is because if we write without reading first we cannot build upon the work of others and we cannot learn from people who have published before. This should be self-evident but often when we are researching and experimenting, we will do a search to help us overcome an issue and will skim through to locate what is hopefully the answer. You might not fully read the introduction or conclusions, not really caring for the context or analysis for someone else.  We do not have time to read each article in depth and have time for research, for writing, for lecturing, for mentoring and for a life outside the research institute. Yet here I am suggesting that you should be reading more in our already packed lives.

If we do not want to learn and develop then this is not something that you should commit to, however, if you do there is always time to be found, even if it is just 15 minutes a day, possibly whilst sitting on the toilet. To improve you should read great writing; this does not have to be a ‘classic’ like Crime and Punishment, but should be something relevant. I would suggest that as writing up research is akin to non-fiction writing, it can be beneficial to read scientific non-fiction books, which can also provide ideas for research or help develop new ways of thinking. This can be science magazines, books or blogs.

Some suggestions for things to read

However, we shouldn’t limit ourselves, great writing is great writing and we can always learn something from it, hopefully, how to tell the best stories possible.

Austin Kleon – http://tumblr.austinkleon.com/post/33792291289

Don’t dilute your output

This probably sounds obvious, and it should be. Nowadays, scientists and researchers are judged, rightly or wrongly, by their publication history. This has contributed to the explosion in the amount of scientific literature available and if you browse it you will often see work that makes you wonder why it was published and what it adds. The obvious answer to this is that it adds to someone’s publication list and that is the only reason it was written up and submitted to a journal. Do you want to be one of the people who add to this pile of ‘irrelevant’ literature? I would hazard a guess that you do not want this. Therefore, this first piece of advice must be given with a proviso that you should write regularly, but only publish relevant work. This might necessitate a change in the way you think about publishing, for example if you have a series of experiments that confirm somebody else’s work that you have done as the groundwork for a research stream, you may want to publish them on your own website if there have been other people also publishing on this. This means that you will not be diluting your work and you will be known for your strong publications.

Don’t aim to write scientifically, aim to write well

When we write something we are often trying to convey who we are, or more specifically who we want to be perceived to be, to the writer. This means that we will alter the tone of our writing according to the audience, an email to a friend will be different from a job application letter. When writing a scientific manuscript it is, therefore, often the case that people write it in a manner they perceive to be ‘scientific’.

What is scientific writing?

When I say scientific writing I mean writing with many technical words intended to convey the idea that you know what you are talking about. These technical words will often be jargon and in some cases might be better conveyed using ‘everyday’ language. This will limit the audience of your work to others who understand the jargon that you are using, as well as potentially making the manuscript more difficult to read.

How can scientific writing be avoided?

Once you have written your manuscript you should get other people to review it, at least one of whom should be reviewing the language used. This should be someone you trust as the feedback might not be what you expect from your ‘perfect’ draft. When you ask this person to review the manuscript you should specifically ask them to keep an eye out for overly ‘scientific’ language.

A second thing that you can do is to read the draft out loud once you have written it. By reading out loud, even if it seems odd, you can identify any issues with ‘pacing’ or where jargon might interfere with the ‘flow’ of the manuscript.

A word of caution

Do not remove scientific words if they are necessary, you should not dumb down just to improve readability. This is a tightrope that you will have to walk, but hopefully by asking others for their opinions this will help navigate the issue.

What are the next steps after the first draft is written?

Once you have produced your first draft and your co-authors have reviewed it, your aim should be to address the comments and get the manuscript submitted to your chosen journal as soon as possible. How you manage this will depend upon the comments you receive.

If they are minimal

  • Make the suggested changes, or ignore comments if you have a reason to do so and can explain it to the person who made the comment
  • Ensure the manuscript is in the style requested by the journal
  • Confirm that all authors are happy to submit
  • Submit to the journal

If there are major or conflicting comments

This will necessitate the development of a second draft and a further round of review. If the comments are conflicting then it is often best to have a teleconference to discuss them and ensure that everyone is in agreement before making any changes. If agreement cannot be reached then the lead author (or the guarantor for the manuscript) should decide what to do.

Depending on the comments on the next draft the cycle will then continue. However, it is important to remember that the manuscript is being written to be published and you should not have innumerable review rounds, demanding perfection if this is at the cost of submitting.

What should be considered when writing a first draft?

By the time you get to writing a first draft of a manuscript I would expect the following steps to have already been completed:

  • Author list confirmed
  • Data fully analysed and data for the manuscript selected
  • Target journal selected
  • Target journal author guidelines read and any appropriate guidelines (e.g. word counts, required sections) noted down, preferably on a cover page to the manuscript
  • Outline written and content agreed/commented on by all authors
  • Extended outline written and agreed/commented on by all authors

If an extended outline exists…

If an extended outline has already been written then the jump to a full first draft should be fairly easy. The bulleted text will be made into complete sentences and linking text added. At this stage further logical gaps in the “story” might be identified and highlight the need for additional introductory text or research. However, this should be fairly minor as these issues will hopefully be identified at the extended outline stage.

If an extended outline does not exist…

I would suggest that if one does not exist then it is beneficial to put one together before writing the manuscript in prose, even if you are not sending it to co-authors for review. This will make the writing of the first draft much easier and should enable the logical flow of the manuscript to be worked out as discussed in my previous blog post.

Remember to write to journal guidelines at this stage to avoid unnecessary editing later on.

What is an extended outline and why might it be beneficial?

Once an outline has been written, discussed with co-authors, revised as appropriate in line with any comments and been agreed upon, the next step is to bulk out the outline. I believe that producing an extended outline in bulleted form, rather than a first draft written in prose is the best next step. This ‘extended’ outline should be the first draft in bullet form and contain everything that is expected to go into the first full draft.

Why an additional step?

In my experience, it is much easier to make revisions to the order information is presented in, when it is in bullet form. It might be that as you write you realise that the logical flow from one point to the next is wrong and that it is might be improved by shifting bits around. Or it could be that when your co-authors read the manuscript they highlight places where more information is needed, which could again change the flow of the document. If the document is written in full sentences, it can be hard to make these changes as it is difficult to see where it might fit. It is much easier to revise a ‘work in progress’ that a ‘fait accompli’. Overall, I have found that adding in this step saves time in the long run and often results in a better manuscript.

Why write an outline?

I, like many other people I expect, have previously tried to write a novel. I attempted it as part of NaNoWriMo, in which people endeavor to write a 50,000 word ‘novel’ during the month of November. I sadly failed in this attempt and looking back I can see two reasons why I failed. Firstly, although I liked the idea I was sadly not that dedicated to spending all my spare time writing and so only managed about 25,000 words. Secondly, I ‘pantsed’ rather than planned – that is I thought that the great novel would flow fully formed without any real forethought or planning. The resultant work was a complete mess, with what amounted to three discrete short stories linked by events, none of which were that good. This experience has shown me the value of planning or outlining at least some aspects of a novel before starting and in future this is what I will be doing.

Why is this relevant to writing about science?

I feel that the same can be true when writing about science, although often to a lesser degree, as the planning and research for conducting experiments should hopefully lend an idea of structure. Nonetheless, whilst it is often easy to list of the key points in the narrative of the research, these can be lost or forgotten when writing a prose document resulting in a loss of coherence.

I would, therefore, suggest writing an outline when starting to work on a document. This should contain the key points for each section and detail any data to be included. This outline will enable you to see if the manuscript makes sense and if there are any gaps, either data gaps or gaps in reasoning, before more words are in place and the manuscript is more difficult to revise. The outline will also allow all proposed authors a chance to input into the manuscript at an early stage and make suggestions that could potentially strengthen the final piece of work.

How much detail should be included in an outline?

The first outline should not be overly detailed as this allows for the best discussion about the proposed structure and makes people more likely to offer input. I would suggest that key statements are included, without over much detail, in the introduction and discussion sections and more detail in the methods and discussion section as these are fixed and will enable people to make more informed comments on the discussion section.

Could an example be given?

If I were to be writing a manuscript on the epidemiology of type 2 diabetes in the South Asian population of the UK, the first outline for the introduction might look something like this:

  • Type 2 diabetes is a major public health issue and the incidence is increasing
  • Type 2 diabetes is more prevalent in South Asian individuals
  • It has been suggested that there are differences between South Asian and White people in the presentation and outcomes of type 2 diabetes
  • For example lower BMI cut-offs have been suggested for overweight and obesity in South Asian individuals
  • The South Asian population is not in fact a single entity, but rather made up of a number of different sub-populations
  • This database study investigates the clinical characteristics at diagnosis of type 2 diabetes for people from these sub-populations

This (fictional) example hopefully highlights the broad nature of statements made and it can be seen how these build up to the research question, showing why the issue is important. Once all authors have agreed upon the first outline, the points can be expanded upon and fully referenced.